I’ve been wanting to make a post about sync for a while. This recent tweet by DJ Sneak made me finally put pen to paper and share my thoughts on the subject.
I have huge admiration and respect for Sneak. The guy has been around forever, earned his dues and is obviously a great ambassador for House music. I love listening to his sets, his track choices, the energy he conveys and how he puts a lot of himself into the music he plays. You can spot a DJ Sneak set a mile away and I dig that.
None of the above has anything to do with whether he uses sync or not, and that’s the point. So on the subject of beat matching and sync, I have to respectfully disagree. Sync don’t matter.
I started off DJ-ing DJ parties for my brother and sister in the early eighties. I would play disco and funk records off a double cassette deck. No sync. No mixing.
Granted, I probably sounded awful. I was learning the ropes. My sister had a huge collection of vinyl records and I was one of the few who knew which tracks was recorded on which tapes. So I was given the task of playing some music and making sure people where happy and dancing.
I was a crap DJ then and I’m far from being the best DJ in the world now. But I didn’t start DJ-ing yesterday and in the process I’ve played music on tapes, vinyls, CDJs, Ableton, Traktor and everything in-between.
Skill vs Art
Some of us are born with talent, some raw abilities that you have in you. Whether those are very pronounced or not you can learn new skills to hone this talent. In some cases, this can turn into an art form. DJ-ing is an art form, no doubt about it. But some of the skills involved in DJ-ing do not contribute to the art form itself. They’re just basics.
Beat matching is not an art. It’s a skill. No matter how you beat match, there is only one possible result if you do it right: Your tracks end up in sync. Beat matching doesn’t contribute anything to your set. You could also be juggling 5 balls while you play. That would also take skills but it still wouldn’t make you a good or a bad DJ.
This is a very important point because if you consider other areas involved with DJ-ing you can clearly see the difference between skill and art. Something artistic has different outcomes depending on who performs the task.
Painting takes skill. You have to learn to use the brushes, learn techniques involving different paint or brush strokes, etc… But once you’ve learned that, your painting of a given subject will never be the same as someone else’s. That’s the artistic part.
EQ mixing is an art. It involves some very basic skills, turning some knobs, but the results can be drastically different depending on who is being the deck/knobs.
Turntablism is an art. It draws from a very complex set of skills, think back to juggling while playing music, but the combination of those skills make it something unique. An art form.
I personally think that beat matching is a skill, and a pretty basic one at that. To make such a big deal about the ‘real’ DJs who beat match and the ‘fakers’ who don’t is insulting the real art form of DJ-ing. It somehow implies, in reverse, that beat matching makes you a good DJ, just like turning knobs on an EQ makes you a good EQ mixer. It’s missing the point.
Why I made the switch
I recently switched to playing with Traktor a lot more often. This of course means that I’m now a sync user and, according to some, makes me less of a DJ. Here’s why I made that decision.
Clubs nowadays tend to push their DJ booths further and further forward in the room. The main reason behind this is that they want to put VIP tables behind the DJ booth for that extra “velvet rope” feeling. Whether this is a good idea or not is a whole other Oprah but it is the current trend, at least in the states.
When I recently opened for Jaceo and Pleasurekraft at Sound Nightclub in L.A, I spent an hour trying to isolate myself from the room sound so that I could beat match properly. I was wearing -25db in ear monitors and I still had to crank up the booth monitors to cover up the room. Enters Jaceo (playing with Ableton) and then Pleasurekraft (playing with Traktor) and I’m left wondering why the f*** I’m even bothering. I’m killing my hearing for no reason whatsoever. No one in the room cared, nor should they. They judged my set on the tracks I played and not on what I was playing the tracks on.
The truth is, I still play on CDJs at home (shameless plug: I use Rekord Buddy so my Rekordbox and Traktor collections are always in sync. /shameless plug) because I have more fun doing it. I get bored when I play on Traktor because there isn’t as much todo. But I can see a time where, especially as I start having fun with Traktor’s effects and Remix Decks, playing with Traktor will be just as fun and probably a lot more creative. Sync and all.
The thing which, to me, makes this argument even more ironic is that some of the most vocal opponents of sync are CDJ users. How quickly we forget that those guys are the ones who received the most criticism and crap from vinyl players back in the days. Back then, if you weren’t playing with 1200Mk2s you weren’t a DJ.
So basically, I’m not a DJ for using sync but you haven’t been a DJ since you started playing CDs. Don’t get me started on USB sticks, maybe none of us are DJs then.
How funny is it to see the recipient of all this hate become themselves haters over a whole new kind of technological advancement. I guess it’s like hazing, you do it because someone did it to you, uh?
So what makes a good DJ?
So if sync doesn’t make you a bad or a good DJ, what does? I always go back to this one simple rule:
Being a good DJ means playing the right track at the right time. -Damien Sirkis
That’s it. Nothing else. I don’t care what you use to play those tracks, CDs, Laptop, Cassette or a slot-in record player. I don’t care if you train wreck or if you can perfectly mix 30 tracks in an hour. Play the right track at the right time and you’ve got me hooked.
Sure, sugar coating your set with some nice EQ mixing or some effects won’t hurt. But it won’t help you fix a bad set. Neither will syncing.
When I get to the club to play a 11pm-midnight opening set, only to find out that the opening DJ before me is playing 130 bpm dubstep, I don’t care if he’s using sync or not. He just doesn’t know how to DJ altogether.
Respect the craft
And that’s probably the issue here. Now that DJ-ing is more and more popular/mainstream, everyone thinks they’re a DJ. I see that in a lot of different fields. There’s this blatant lack of what I call “respect for the craft” going around, mainly caused by everyone feeding you on repeat that “you can be/do/achieve whatever you want”. Trust me, you cannot. That’s what makes the achievement great. It’s not something everyone can do.
Learning a craft is hard. It takes time. Not everyone will see it thru and not everyone will be good at it. You’re not going to be a DJ just because you’ve decided to do it. Bad DJs aren’t bad because of the tools that they use. They are bad because they don’t respect the craft.
Listen to a set recorded on a podcast or at a club while at the bar and not looking at the DJ (did you know that, early on, the booth at “The Haçienda” wasn’t even facing the room, no one cared what the DJ was doing, just what he sounded like). Does it matter how the music is being played? Do you think to yourself: “This set is great! That guys must be beat matching and not using sync”? Of course not. It doesn’t matter.
Bad DJs are bad DJs and need to learn to respect the craft. Good ones will remain good no matter what hardware they use to play or whether they beat match or not.
I think, and most people will agree, that I sound exactly the same when I play on my CDJs and on Traktor. Whether I sound good or not is subjective and open to discussion, but at least it’s consistent.
I wrote this post while listening to Sneak play his DJ Sounds set from Ibiza. He sounded great. I have no idea if sync was on or not 🙂